Saturday, February 18, 2017

"NASCAR Great" Dale Earnhardt Dies In Last-lap Crash - February 18, 2001

Dale Earnhardt, considered one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, dies at the age of 49 in a last-lap crash at the 43rd Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Earnhardt was driving his famous black No. 3 Chevrolet and vying for third place when he collided with the car driven by Sterling Marlin into the outside wall nose-first, into the path of Ken Schrader's car. Earnhardt's team, DEI drivers, Michael Waltrip won the race, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in second place. Earnhardt, Sr. and Schrader slid off the track's asphalt banking toward the infield grass just inside of turn four. Earnhardt Sr. was taken to Halifax Medical Center after he was extricated from his car, and was pronounced dead at 5:16 p.m. Hours later, Mike Helton, president of NASCAR announced to the officials, drivers and fans that Earnhardt had died from the accident. An autopsy concluded that Earnhardt died instantly of blunt force trauma to the head. Earnhardt's funeral was held on February 22, 2001, at the Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

After Earnhardt's death, a police investigation and a NASCAR-sanctioned investigation commenced; nearly every detail of the crash was made public. The allegations of seatbelt failure resulted in Bill Simpson's resignation from the company bearing his name, which manufactured the seatbelts used in Earnhardt's car and nearly every other NASCAR driver's car.

The effect that Earnhardt's death had on motorsports and the media frenzy that followed were massive. Auto racing had not experienced a death of this magnitude since that of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna in 1994. Senna was regarded as highly in Formula One as Earnhardt was in NASCAR. Earnhardt won the NASCAR Talladega race in 1994 on the day that Senna was killed, and in victory lane he expressed his sorrow for the Senna family.

NASCAR implemented rigorous safety improvements, such as making the HANS device mandatory. Earnhardt had refused to wear it because he found it restrictive and uncomfortable. Several press conferences were held in the days following Earnhardt's death. Some angry Earnhardt fans sent hate mail and death threats to Sterling Marlin and his relatives. In response, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. absolved Marlin of any responsibility.

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